A film review by Craig J. Koban May 6, 2019


2019, PG-13, 105   mins.


Gina Rodriguez as Gloria  /  Ismael Cruz Córdova as Lino  /  Matt Lauria as Brian  /  Cristina Rodlo as Suzu  /  Ricardo Abarca as Pollo

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke  /  Written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer






The new crime thriller MISS BALA is one of those all too frequent and frustrating filmgoing experiences because it contains a wonderfully authentic and textured lead performance that's mostly betrayed from some extremely spotting writing and weak handling of its would-be compelling themes.  

The premise itself - if handled improperly - easily inspires chuckles (a young woman completely in over her head finds herself an unwilling participant in a beauty contest as well as being forced to work for one of the country's most vile criminal gangs), but the problem with MISS BALA isn't that it's preposterous, but rather that it's an egregiously soft pedaled and most pedestrian take on the material given.  There's an intriguingly complex movie buried very deep within its mostly mediocre shell. 

Plus, this movie was already made once before in the 2011 Mexico entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (unseen by me).  This new iteration of that movie does boast some stylistic panache, some interesting ideas about cultural displacement, and, most importantly, it's an action thriller headed up by a female lead and director in Gina Rodriguez and Catherine Hardwicke (THE LORDS OF DOGTOWN and TWILIGHT) respectively.  That, and MISS BALA is one of the decidedly ultra rare breed of mainstream Hollywood films that boasts a mostly all Latino cast, which is something to absolutely get behind and celebrate.  But the end result here is so disappointingly forgettable and cheaply disposable that it all but trumps some of the film's virtues.  MISS BALA is fairly well made, crafted, and acted, but it has very little in the way of lasting staying power, which is a small shame. 



Rodriguez, at the very least, really shines in a star making performances as Gloria, a semi-struggling L.A. based makeup artists that decides to travel to her native country of Mexico to assist her friend in Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) prepare for the upcoming Miss Baja California beauty contest.  Trying to break free from the stress of competing, Suzu takes Gloria out for a night on the town at a popular local nightclub, but then tragedy strikes when armed killers attack with machine guns, leading to Gloria being separated from her BFF, fearing for her well being and safety.  To make matters worse, the local police offer no assistance to Gloria and single-handedly hand her over to the very perpetrators of the nightclub attack.  This dangerous criminal organization forces her into indentured servitude to do whatever they want whenever they need it, and all under the intense scrutiny of it leader, Lino (Ishmael Cruz Cordova).  Things gets really complicated when the DEA gets involved and secretly arrests Gloria on suspicions that she willingly works for the crooks and forces her, in turn, to work for them as an undercover agent. 

Worst.  Trip.  Ever. 

Now, all of this sounds pretty outlandish, but MISS BALA scores some modest points in the manner that it delves into Gloria's sense of displacement while being in Mexico.  She's Latino, yes, but lives in America, which causes her to lose some respect with the locals who don't see her as a real Mexican.  This is crucial to Lino's plan to use this poor woman, especially after he realizes that her possession of an American passport might help him with his empire.  When the DEA comes swooping in they make very stereotypical assumptions of Gloria, finding her all but guilty based on the color of her skin (they see her as a untrustworthy criminal, not a victim in all of this).  In multiple respects, this is a nightmare predicament for this woman in the wrong place and at the wrong time, and because she's being maliciously used by people on both sides of the border she begins to feel alienated and someone without a nation to back her up.  That's frightening.   

And Rodriquez is paramount to selling this character's frail sense of hopelessness and emotional and physical vulnerability.  Gloria goes on a tumultuous arc throughout the course of the story as well, having to segue from teary eyed and terrified prey to a fairly headstrong and willing to do anything go-between agent between the interests of the cartel and the DEA agents, which culminates in ample danger and violence erupting between all parties.  Even when the screenplay dives into some laughably incredulous moments that strain modest logic, Rodriquez always makes Gloria feel relatable and dramatically grounded, and someone that's fully credible playing moments of anxiety plagued panic alongside later moments when she becomes a strong and ferociously determined woman driven to secure her freedom.  And the sight of her late in the film in a beauty contest evening gown while sporting a massive machine gun is purely absurd, but on a level of grindhouse thrills it kind of works; Rodriguez makes us believe in the film's most cockamamie moments.  Beyond that, I also liked that the actress tapped into Gloria's nagging sense of self-doubt about her own cultural identity and heritage, which gives an added dramatic layer to the proceedings.   

But, gee whiz, why couldn't the film built around her empowered performance be just as finely tuned?  One big issue is the watered down PG-13 rating here, and more often than not, MISS BALA begs to be a hard edged R-rated outing and frequently feels like its not pushing the extreme boundaries of this story the way it should be.  The plot also meanders around quite a bit and never manages to obtain a true focal point at times; you're left wondering what kind of movie MISS BALA is trying to be as you leave the cinema.  The central arc of Gloria's dilemma remains a constantly enthralling one, but one that feels like it deserves a longer form mini-series treatment versus the short running time that a feature film has to offer.  It's also not entirely believable to witness Gloria evolve so quickly into a gun touting heroine by the film's end, a somewhat jarring transition that - while being a moment that should make audiences cheer - never feels truly earned.  It all makes the final sections of MISS BALA coming off as rushed, and when the film is desperately trying to establish the dramatic veracity of Gloria's situation early on there's a real tonal disconnect in the final act watching her morph into what amounts to a super hero.  Rodriguez' performance sells us here, just not the weak scripting.  It's a real conundrum. 

Hardwicke's direction goes for gritty verisimilitude, and it's a solid looking film with texture and a sense of unknown danger around every corner.  But too much of MISS BALA seems to be hastily running to the next blood soaked (or, in this film's PG-13 case, bloodless) action sequence, leaving any thorough and thoughtful commentary on its noteworthy themes feeling like they've been left on the sidelines.  Oddly enough, there's also something a bit unsavory about this film's sexual/ethnic politics, and the Lino character himself - despite his manipulative and homicidal tendencies - seems to have been egregiously romanticized as a misunderstood gangster.  That rings quite falsely throughout.  Why Gloria would ever warm up to this guy on any level is a mystery.  This leads into a larger conversation about Latino involvement overall in the film.  It's great.  We need more movies with strong female lead characters featuring gender and cultural inclusion on multiple levels.  On a superficial level, MISS BALA should be applauded for achieving such inclusiveness.  But why can't we simply have more movies with Latinos not playing gangsters and drug dealers?  

MISS BALA is a film of real contradictions.  It's wonderfully acted and well shot by its female actress and director.  It's also a noble effort as a studio film with a reasonable budget that harnesses its nearly all Latino cast.  But it all feels so regressive minded in approach and execution.  And Rodriguez in particular is too good of an actress for something this generic. 

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